In January of 2014, Bill Simmons put out a statement.
At the time, Simmons was in his last two years as editor-in-chief of Grantland, the vertical of ESPN.com that had hosted his content since 2011. A few days before, Grantland’s Caleb Hannan had published a piece about a magic putter and its mysterious creator that revealed both sides to be a scam. But Hanaan didn’t just break news about golf equipment: He revealed that the putter’s creator, Essay Anne Vanderbilt, was transgender. Vanderbilt had killed herself by the time Hannan’s piece broke.
Advocates for the LGBTQ community savaged Simmons, Hannan, and Grantland for their handling of the situation. The piece actually misgendered Vanderbilt throughout, and never mentions the fact that transgender people are at an increased risk of suicide, depression, and self-harm.
Simmons, in a statement, basically fell on the sword: The issues with the piece, he said, hadn’t occurred to Grantland’s editorial staff until he talked to Christina Kahrl, a baseball writer who was herself transgender. Neither Simmons nor any of his staffers knew which pronouns to use for a trans person, or when, or how to talk about Vanderbilt’s gender identity in a way that didn’t reek with the whiff of contempt. Simmons said it simply: “We weren’t sophisticated enough. In the future, we will be sophisticated enough — at least on this particular topic.”
For some reason, Simmons’ use of the word sophistication is what stuck with me. Yes, it could be read as an attempt to shroud bigotry in the language of class and education. But it speaks to something deeper — societies and individuals march forwards, and they learn; their learning reveals crimes they hadn’t considered before. It’s only if we’re willing to learn that we can avoid making the same mistake again. That’s what it means to be sophisticated enough.
I first stumbled across Simmons’ letter over the summer, when I was browsing his archive in Grantland to get some sense of how he wrote. (ESPN canned Simmons beneath a cascade of other controversies in 2015, and Grantland ended shortly thereafter.) But it’s been one of the only things I’ve been able to think about since at least last Tuesday.
You might know Colorado Springs, Colorado, as a place where people smoke a lot of weed. (It is Colorado, after all.) It’s also the home of the U.S. Air Force Academy. But, last week, it became famous for another, awful reason: A gunman opened fire on a gay nightclub inside the city limits, killing five people and injuring 19 others.
For some, the shooting called to mind Pulse in 2016, when an ISIS sympathizer massacred revelers at a gay club in Orlando, Florida. But the owner of Club Q, Nic Grzecka, felt the shooting represented something new, something darker, than America’s LGBTQ community had ever seen before.
“It’s different to walk down the street holding my boyfriend’s hand and getting spit at [as opposed to] a politician relating a drag queen to a groomer of their children,” Grzecka said, according to Axios. “I would rather be spit on in the street than the hate get as bad as where we are today.”
Gay, lesbian, and transgender Americans have always been subjected to slander. But, if you grew up among evangelical Christians, or homeschooled fundamentalists, you know another reason why Colorado Springs is famous: It’s not where that slander burned the hottest, but it’s where it traveled the farthest.
Focus on the Family, among the nation’s oldest special-interest groups for the politics of evangelical Christianity, has been headquartered in the Springs since the 1990s. Its founder and first president, Dr. James Dobson, helped popularize terms like “homosexual agenda,” organized campaigns against equality-oriented legislation in the city, state, and country, and was part of an infamous television broadcast in which another fundamentalist activist, the Reverend Jerry Falwell, blamed LGBTQ people for 9/11.
When Jim Daly became the president of Focus in 2006, he eschewed some of Dobson’s harshest words and most ardent initiatives. He even tried to build bridges in listening sessions with Colorado Springs’ gay community. But Daly never apologized for what his predecessor had said, done, and promoted.
Perhaps that’s because Focus was trying to strike a more delicate balance between the rise of progressive, forward-thinking evangelicals and those who still believe that homosexuality is a mortal sin. Or, perhaps Daly genuinely wants evangelicals to calm their tough talk on LGBTQ issues while accepting the traditional interpretation of the Bible. Nevertheless, when the bullets stopped flying on Tuesday night, Focus on the Family was on my mind. I’m sure I wasn’t alone.
No, really. I’m a hundred percent sure.
Over the Thanksgiving holiday, someone defaced Focus’ headquarters, which are still in Colorado Springs, writing “Their blood is on your hands” and “Five lives taken” in red ink on the organization’s sign.
Vandalism is bad, especially when it comes to political speech, and this particular act of vandalism was leveled against a religious institution that, for all its faults, did so much more than what it’s famous for. Still, it doesn’t exactly take a decoder ring to figure out what the vandal was saying here: Focus on the Family, by waging ideological war against sexual minorities for the better part of 40 years, bears some responsibility for the invective that they face in modern American society. And if Focus bears responsibility for the invective, they bear responsibility for the day when, as Michelle Goldberg wrote in The New York Times, “a sick man with a gun took them seriously.”
“When I was a child,” wrote the Apostle Paul, “I spake as a child. I understood as a child. I thought as a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
When I was a child, I consumed a lot of content from Focus on the Family; I believed that their words and ideas could be useful tools to get me closer to God; and I hardly ever questioned their undying conviction that the forward of gay rights was the mark of a world gone mad. Only when the fog of childhood started to fade did I rethink the way I’d seen the LGBTQ community. My relationship with Focus, and the people who still trusted and believed in their principles, was never the same. It couldn’t be.
As the grief has come pouring out of Colorado Springs, I’ve thought about the fate of Christian kids (and former kids) across the country — those who left the faith altogether, and those who reexamined their own, as I did. The words that entered our ears and left our mouths before we knew enough to reject them are linked, inextricably, to those in the mouths of persecutory politicians — and their words are linked to those that have dogged the children of God from the first time we told them they weren’t.
We weren’t sophisticated enough, as Bill Simmons would say, to do right by our LGBTQ friends, neighbors, co-workers, classmates, compatriots. And we have to be more sophisticated, more compassionate, more loving, in the future.
After the Club Q shooting, Jim Daly put out a statement mourning the lives lost and praying for peace in the Springs. I wasn’t expecting him to apologize to the LGBTQ community for his organization’s role in fomenting prejudice and discrimination; I sure as heck wasn’t expecting him to apologize to us for making us incubators of that foment. But a part of me hoped that he might acknowledge who the dead were before they died, or where the dead were when they died, or why the dead were dead. Another part of me hoped that he’d point out that his organization hadn’t always agreed with the LGBTQ community on the issues of life, love, and existence, but that the most important thing now was for the communities of Colorado to come together and help the LGBTQ community as they mourned their dead. But hope and reality are two different things; Daly’s statement never even toed those waters.
The morning after his building got vandalized, Daly did toe some new waters, though. He said that Tuesday’s tragedy called for “prayer, grieving, and healing, not vandalism and the spreading of hate.”
I don’t think I’m sophisticated enough to miss the irony.